Saturday, March 29, 2008

Ordained as a Nation

Pankaj Mishra

  • The Wilsonian Moment: Self-Determination and the International Origins of Anti-Colonial Nationalism by Erez Manela Buy this book


Early in The Wilsonian Moment, Erez Manela tells a story about Ho Chi Minh that I often heard in student Communist circles in India. Ho was an indigent worker in Paris when Woodrow Wilson arrived in the city in 1919 with a plan to make the world ‘safe for democracy’. Inspired by Wilson’s advocacy of national self-determination, Ho sought an audience with the US president, hoping to persuade him to use his new influence to restore Vietnamese rule in French Indo-China. He carefully quoted from the US Declaration of Independence in his petition. In Manela’s more poignant version, he also rented a morning suit. Needless to say, Ho got nowhere near Wilson or any other Western leader; he found a sympathetic audience only among French Communists.

Many Communist students I knew in India repeated with reverence the story of Ho’s failed mission because it appeared to confirm their ur-text, Lenin’s Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism. Written in 1916, this pamphlet had proved that Wilson was as unlikely to restore Indo-China to the Vietnamese as he was to withdraw American troops from Panama. The United States was as much of an imperialist power as Britain and Japan, greedy for resources, territory and markets, part of a capitalist world system of oppression and plunder whose inherent instability had caused the Great War.

Lenin’s text came to many of us in the Indian provinces as an exhilarating revelation. No amount of praise appeared sufficient for the Soviet leader who had pre-empted Wilson in calling for national self-determination. Hadn’t he exposed the secret agreement between France, Britain and tsarist Russia to carve up the Middle East, among other booty of the imperialist war? True to his anti-imperialist rhetoric, he had promised autonomy to Russia’s ethnic minorities and had voluntarily given up the special concessions Russia enjoyed in subjugated China along with other Western powers and Japan.

Communist study circles did not of course discuss what Stalin made of Lenin’s promise to Russia’s ethnic nationalities, or how Asian Communists overturned Lenin’s facile equation – imperialism equals monopoly capitalism – when in the early 1960s China accused the Soviet Union of imperialist aggression. I learned even less about the capitalist rival of Marxist internationalism: liberal internationalism, which originated in the Progressive Movement of the United States and, as eloquently articulated by Woodrow Wilson, enjoyed worldwide appeal for a few hopeful months after the end of the First World War, when a new world order seemed likely to rise on the ruins of the Austro-Hungarian, German, Ottoman and Russian Empires.

Trawling through four national archives, Manela has produced an immensely rich and important work of comparative politics centred on the ‘Wilsonian moment’, which he dates from autumn 1918 to spring 1919. ‘Disseminated to a growing global audience’, Wilson’s rousing speeches leading up to the Paris Peace Conference earned him, as Maynard Keynes later recorded, ‘a prestige and a moral influence throughout the world unequalled in history’. Emboldened by him, nationalist leaders in Egypt and India joined Sinn Féin in seriously challenging British authority, and China and Korea grew more aggressive in their demands for political and economic autonomy.

Anti-colonialists everywhere had been transfixed by the swift rise of the United States, a new political and economic power rare among Western nations for possessing a strong tradition of anti-imperialism. For much of the 19th century, the United States had been isolationist in its foreign policy and protectionist in its economic; and its footprint was light in Asia and Africa, where, as even Raymond Aron conceded, the natives did not need to read or even understand Lenin, or have to deal with a repressive imperial police state, to identify Europe with imperialism. There was enough evidence for it in everyday life and memory: ‘the exploitation of raw materials without any attempt to create local industry; the destruction of native crafts and the stunted growth of industrial development that resulted from the influx of European goods; high interest rates on loans; ownership of major businesses by foreign capitalists’.

The war, which enfeebled the economies of the major imperialist powers – Britain, Germany and France – and further discredited their regimes, endowed America with both power and moral prestige. Wilson, who barely had a foreign policy before war broke out in Europe in 1914, wasn’t slow to realise the implications of European turmoil for the United States; and he fleshed out a new and noble American sense of mission before he reluctantly took his country into the European war. ‘We are provincials no longer,’ he famously declared in his second inaugural address in March 1917. Though still publicly opposed to American intervention in the war, he insisted that ‘our own fortunes as a nation are involved whether we would have it so or not.’

In speeches addressed to ‘the peoples of the countries now at war’ he burnished his credentials as a mediator who could negotiate what he called (borrowing the phrase from Walter Lippmann, the energetic young editor of the New Republic) a ‘peace without victory’. Later, he would propose a much more unusual and high-minded plan for enduring peace – replacing militarist regimes with democracies – which liberal intellectuals as well as conservative politicians would invoke with diminishing returns throughout the 20th century, culminating in the invasion of Iraq in 2003, which inspired the New Republic to declare George W. Bush ‘the most Wilsonian president since Wilson himself’.

Wilson had begun to outline the American preference for regime change in unfriendly countries well before he declared war on Germany. Faced in late 1913 with revolution and the likely rejection of American influence in Mexico, he had decided to ‘teach the South American republics to elect good men’. ‘When properly directed,’ he claimed, ‘there is no people not fitted for self-government.’ Wilson was also convinced that proper direction in the postwar order could be provided only by the United States. When his peace overtures failed, he went to war in April 1917, still confident that ‘we are chosen, and prominently chosen, to show the way to the nations of the world how they shall walk in the paths of liberty.’

Wilson, an academic by training, was fortified in his convictions by such liberal intellectuals as John Dewey, Walter Lippmann and Herbert Croly (co-founder of the New Republic), who believed that by joining the war America would make the world safe for democracy rather than, as was the case, help the Allied powers deliver a knockout blow to the Germans. As Randolph Bourne, a young critic whose opposition to American intervention made him an outcast among liberal intellectuals, pointed out as early as August 1917, the United States had lost whatever leverage it had as an impartial mediator when it declared war on Germany.

Nevertheless, Wilson pressed ahead with his scheme for a democratic international order, which he hoped would be cemented by a League of Nations. Speaking to Congress in January 1918 he revealed his most ambitious project yet: a 14-point manifesto for the new world envisaged by the United States. Secret diplomacy was to have no place, and free trade, popular government, freedom of the seas, the reduction of armaments, the rights of small countries, and an association of nations to keep the peace were to be the new articles of faith.

Wilson’s Fourteen Points would have been lofty ideals at any time (God, as Clemenceau joked, had only ten). They were particularly unrealistic during a global war that would soon end with Britain, France and Japan adding to their possessions in the Middle East, Africa and East Asia. As it turned out, Wilson was soon forced to compromise his ideals while dealing with the victorious allies at the postwar peace conference in Paris.

It is likely that Wilson would not have stepped up the rhetorical ante in January 1918 if the Bolsheviks had not withdrawn Russia from the war and called on workers and soldiers to cease fighting one another and become revolutionaries against their own rulers. In asserting that America was fighting for a better world, Wilson was trying to undercut Bolshevik claims that the war was a struggle among imperialist powers, with the victorious elites likely to share the spoils. He aimed to influence those Americans and Europeans who, growing tired of the endless fighting, appeared dangerously susceptible to Bolshevik propaganda. Almost by accident, he reached a much bigger and more receptive audience in the colonised world.

Marxism was then being studied and debated in many Asian cities and towns where European traders and missionaries had set up Western-style educational institutions. But the Russian Revolution and its anti-imperialist ethos was not much known. The United States, too, was an unknown player in international relations, and its record in the Philippines or Latin America – Wilson’s imposition, for instance, of military protectorates on Haiti and Nicaragua – went mostly unexamined. Boosted by a slick propaganda campaign, Wilson easily won the first round of his war of ideas with the Bolsheviks, heralding a world where small nations would enjoy the right of self-determination. And so ‘when peace came,’ Manela writes, ‘colonial peoples moved to claim their place in that world on the basis of Wilson’s proclamations.’

In Egypt, Sa’d Zaghlul, a liberal reformist, organised a new political party called the Wafd (‘delegation’) in preparation for the Paris Peace Conference. Soon after war began, the British had declared Egypt a protectorate of the British Empire, formalising their invasion and occupation of the country in 1882. Zaghlul, who is known in Egypt as the Father of the Nation, denounced the protectorate as illegal and hoped to enlist Wilson on his side. ‘No people more than the Egyptian people,’ he wrote in a telegram to Wilson, ‘has felt strongly the joyous emotion of the birth of a new era which, thanks to your virile action, is soon going to impose itself upon the universe.’

Inspired by Wilson’s rhetoric, nationalist leaders in Korea wrote their own Declaration of Independence. Expectations ran even higher in India and China, which had contributed more than a million soldiers and labourers to the Allied war effort in Europe and the Middle East. Tagore wanted to dedicate one of his books to Wilson and, stirred by Wilson’s wartime speeches, Hindu and Muslim leaders of the Indian National Congress jointly demanded to send their delegates – Gandhi among them – to represent India at the peace conference. In Beijing students gathered in front of the American Embassy chanting ‘Long Live President Wilson!’ Liang Qichao, the reformist intellectual and earliest inspiration of Mao Zedong, went to Paris to ensure that China’s sovereignty was respected by the victorious powers, particularly Japan, which, in a campaign green-lighted by Britain during the war, had seized German-held territory in the Shandong peninsula.

Asians and Africans accustomed to stonewalling colonial officials were naturally attracted to the generous promises of the American president. But Wilson, a Southerner who shared the reflexive racism of many in his class and generation (and liked to tell jokes about ‘darkies’), was an unlikely hero in the alleys of Delhi, Cairo and Canton. Piously Presbyterian, and a helpless anglophile (he had courted his wife with quotations from Bagehot and Burke), he had hoped that in the Philippines and Puerto Rico the United States would follow the British tradition of instructing ‘less civilised’ peoples in law and order. After all, ‘they are children and we are men in these deep matters of government and justice.’

Ho Chi Minh would not have bothered to rent a morning suit had he known that Wilson believed as much as his bellicose rival Theodore Roosevelt in America’s responsibility to shoulder the white man’s burden. In January 1917 Wilson argued that America should stay out of the war in order, as he said in a cabinet meeting, to ‘keep the white race strong against the yellow – Japan for instance’. He believed, as he told his secretary of state, Robert Lansing, that ‘“white civilisation” and its domination over the world rested largely on our ability to keep this country intact.’ Though apparently all-encompassing, his rhetoric about self-determination was aimed at the European peoples – Poles, Romanians, Czechs, Serbs – who were part of the German, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires. In his effort to establish the League of Nations as a framework for collective security and enduring peace in Europe, he had little interest in persuading Britain and France to relinquish their colonial possessions.

Not that this was possible. Wilson had had his chance in the spring of 1917 when he first heard of the secret treaties that outlined how Britain, France, Japan and Italy planned to divide up entire empires among themselves after the war. He could have made American intervention contingent on the Allied powers cancelling these arrangements. Instead, he pretended that the treaties didn’t exist, and even tried to prevent their publication in the US after the Bolsheviks exposed their existence.

Travelling to Europe in 1919, Wilson hoped to appeal directly to the people, over the heads of their leaders. Ecstatic crowds in France and Italy credited him with hastening the end of a deeply unloved war, but in Paris he confronted hardened and cynical imperialists in Lloyd George and Clemenceau. After several internecine wars, Europe’s imperial powers had arrived at a balance-of-power politics. Their representatives in Paris hoped to restore the equilibrium that war had disrupted by reducing Germany’s power; and Wilson kept compromising in the hope that old and new problems in the world order would be solved by his cherished League of Nations.

Mao Zedong caught Wilson’s haplessness in Paris perfectly:

Wilson in Paris was like an ant on a hot skillet. He didn’t know what to do. He was surrounded by thieves like Clemenceau, Lloyd George, Makino and Orlando. He heard nothing except accounts of receiving certain amounts of territory and of reparations worth so much in gold. He did nothing except to attend various kinds of meetings where he could not speak his mind. One day a Reuters telegram read: ‘President Wilson has finally agreed with Clemenceau’s view that Germany not be admitted to the League of Nations.’ When I saw the words ‘finally agreed’, I felt sorry for him for a long time. Poor Wilson!

The League, rejected by the US Senate, turned out to be a fiasco. Wilson’s failures in Paris angered and eventually lost him his liberal supporters at the New Republic. Defeated over Germany, he barely put up a fight when it came to the rights of non-European peoples, many of whom – including the Persians and Syrians – did not get a hearing at the conference. Though backed by a majority of votes, a clause for racial equality proposed by the Japanese delegation foundered because Wilson feared alienating the British and their Australian allies, who wanted to maintain their White Australia Policy.

To a large extent anglophilia blinded Wilson and his advisers, mostly members of the East Coast WASP elite, to anti-colonial feelings in Asia and Africa. The American secretary of state fully backed British rule over Egypt. Allen Dulles, a future Cold Warrior who was then a state department official, suggested that Egyptian demands ‘should not even be acknowledged’. The British, working the special relationship to their advantage, ensured that petitions sent to Wilson in Paris were filed away never to be heard of again; they also told Wilson that Tagore was a dangerous revolutionary (he didn’t get permission for his dedication).

Indian and Korean nationalists didn’t get anywhere near Paris. India was represented by a delegation picked by the British, including a maharajah in a flamboyant red turban. The Egyptians suffered a deeper humiliation. In March 1919 the British arrested Zaghlul and deported him to Malta, provoking widespread public protests in Egypt – what later came to be known as the 1919 Revolution. Faced with nationwide revolt, the British relented and allowed Zaghlul to go to Paris. But while he was honing his English, the British managed to persuade the Americans that Bolsheviks had plotted with Islamic fanatics to fuel the unrest in Egypt. Zaghlul was on his way from Marseille to Paris when Wilson recognised the British protectorate. The Egyptian journalist Muhammad Haykal expressed the general outrage when he wrote:

Here was the man of the Fourteen Points, among them the right to self-determination, denying the Egyptian people its right to self-determination . . . And doing all that before the delegation on behalf of the Egyptian people had arrived in Paris to defend its claim, and before President Wilson had heard one word from them! Is this not the ugliest of treacheries?!

The sense of betrayal was even stronger among millions of Chinese who, unlike the Indians and the Koreans, were adequately represented at the conference. Wilson was sympathetic to Chinese claims on Japanese-occupied Shandong, but he could not persuade Lloyd George and Clemenceau to rescind their wartime promises to Japan. News of China’s failure in May 1919 brought enraged students out on the streets of Beijing, denouncing the US president as a liar. Demonstrations and strikes erupted across China in what would later be known as the May Fourth Movement, an explosion of intellectual and political energy that reverberated through the next decades.

‘The emergence of the Wilsonian moment had heralded the end of a great conflict, the European war,’ Manela writes, ‘but its dissipation gave rise to a greater one still, one “between East and West, between imperialism and self-determination”.’ Western powers could not forever ignore or suppress the nationalist claims and in 1922 China, which had refused to sign the Treaty of Versailles, received a new settlement, restoring Japanese-held areas in Shandong to its sovereignty. Egypt remained volatile, and in the same year the British were forced to grant it a degree of self-rule. In India they tried to retain the repressive policies introduced during the war; but the killing of four hundred demonstrators in Amritsar in April 1919 only accelerated the transformation of the Indian National Congress from a gentleman’s debating club into a mass political party.

‘The new era of self-determination’, as Manela writes, had come, but ‘it was one of conflict rather than co-operation.’ Wilson’s apparent complicity with old-style imperialists united many educated Asians in what Manela calls ‘cynical hostility to Western civilisation’. The early generation of Asian intellectuals and activists had looked to their Western conquerors with awe and admiration. Their nationalism tended to be frankly ‘derivative’, an admission that those who wanted to catch up with the West could do no better than learn from its industrialism and the obviously superior institutions of liberal democracy. But such bourgeois gradualism no longer seemed so attractive to many anti-colonial intellectuals after the Paris Peace Conference.

Liberals such as Tagore who believed in synthesis, a dialogue between West and East, felt particularly humiliated. Gandhi had never expected much of Woodrow Wilson but Tagore had, and on a lecture tour of the United States in 1930 he unexpectedly turned on his American audience, who were probably expecting to be educated about Eastern spirituality. ‘Our appeal does not reach you,’ Tagore said, ‘because you respond only to the appeal of power. Japan appealed to you and you answered because she was able to prove she would make herself as obnoxious as you can.’ Only a deep lingering bitterness could have made the poet tell a New York audience including Franklin Roosevelt, Henry Morgenthau and Sinclair Lewis that ‘a great portion of the world suffers from your civilisation.’

Travelling to Paris, Wilson may have believed that liberalism ‘must be more liberal than ever before, it must even be radical, if civilisation is to escape the typhoon’. But secular liberalism in Muslim countries under direct British control had been tainted well before the true scale of British duplicity in the Middle East was revealed at the end of the war. Even the moderate Islamic scholar, Egypt’s grand mufti Muhammad Abduh, said that ‘we Egyptians . . . believed once in English liberalism and English sympathy; but we believe no longer, for facts are stronger than words. Your liberalness we see plainly is only for yourselves, and your sympathy with us is that of the wolf for the lamb which he designs to eat.’

In China, hostility to Japan and anger at the country’s own fractious warlords fused with anti-Western sentiment to create a sharper-edged nationalism. Western-style liberalism would continue to enjoy a vogue among educated, well-travelled Chinese. But the 20-year-old poet Qu Qiubai, a student of Buddhism who later became a crucial contact in Moscow for the fledgling Chinese Communist Party, found – and he was not alone – that ‘the sharp pain of imperialistic oppression’ liberated him from the illusions of ‘impractical democratic reforms’. Mao Zedong was left with an enduring suspicion of Western motives and policies, and a broader awareness of the political possibilities available to subjugated peoples. As Manela puts it,

the Chinese protest against international injustice, Mao discovered, was part of a wider pattern of uprisings of marginalised groups in international society striving for the recognition of their rights to self-determination and equality. Only the transformation of the norms and practices of international relations would allow China to attain its rightful place among nations.

Manela believes that ‘the rise of Communism in China and elsewhere in the early 1920s was part of that quest, as the failure of the liberal anti-colonialism of the Wilsonian moment to fulfil its promise sparked a search for alternative ideologies.’ After initial successes, Wilson’s influence was overtaken by Lenin’s; China may have been ‘lost’ to Communism not, as the Cold Warriors alleged, in 1949, but in 1919. State-regulated capitalism rather than central planning would bring China – and India – close to their rightful place among nations in the age of globalisation; but the change of economic models did not diminish the lustre of national sovereignty. Nationalist feeling, defined by these early anti-imperialist campaigns for equality, remains potent in both countries, continuing to fuel middle-class Chinese and Indian desires for greater dignity in a world where economic power is shifting back to Asia.

Faced with an enormous task of compression, Manela can only outline how anti-colonial nationalism drew on a great suspicion of Western politicians with noble ideals as well as of those with guns. It would be too much to expect him also to examine Wilson’s legacy, the ‘liberal internationalism’ whose tattered flag was held up most recently by liberal hawks supporting the invasion of Iraq. It is hard, however, to read his book without wondering how those espousing compassionately liberal policies at home become susceptible to violent humanitarianism abroad – what Randolph Bourne incredulously called ‘war in the interests of democracy’. ‘This was almost the sum of their philosophy,’ Bourne wrote of his old friends. ‘The primitive idea to which they regressed became almost insensibly translated into a craving for action.’

Wilson chose to cast American interests abroad in highly moral, even mystical terms, claiming that, as Bourne described it, the United States had been ‘ordained as a nation to lead all erring brothers towards the light of liberty and democracy’; and since the objectives of liberal democracies coincide, Germany could become peaceful by discarding its militarist regime and embracing democracy with American help. (The more corporate-friendly version of this peculiarly American idea is Thomas Friedman’s belief that countries where McDonald’s burgers are eaten never go to war with each other.)

In Paris, Lloyd George and Clemenceau demonstrated that leaders of democracies could be just as brazenly imperialistic as military dictators. But then Wilson, who had presided over a serious erosion of civil liberties at home during the war, was no stranger to moral compromises in foreign policy: he had supported, for instance, China’s militarist president Yuan Shikai against the nationalists allied with Sun Yat-sen in 1913 in the hope of keeping America’s ‘Open Door’ to China.

Such expediencies were later to define the Cold War, in which the United States, as Dean Acheson unironically proclaimed, was ‘willing to help people who believe the way we do, to continue to live the way they want to live’. Or, as the current national security adviser, trying to explain Bush’s recent farewell calls on pro-American dictators in the Middle East, put it, ‘these folks . . . are on board with the freedom agenda and they are pursuing it in their own fashion.’

Wilson’s rhetorical achievement – which distinguished him sharply from traditional European practitioners of realpolitik – was to present America’s strategic and political interests as moral imperatives, and its foreign interventions as necessary acts of international responsibility. European leaders periodically stressed their civilising mission, but no one before Wilson endowed national exceptionalism with such a modern and unimpeachably noble aspiration as ‘democracy’.

Intoxicated by the moral passions of Wilsonianism, American liberal intellectuals would work harder than their European counterparts to justify wars that political leaders promised would make the world safe for democracy. These sincere believers would also be more vulnerable, when faced with the collapse of their bold schemes, to the guilt-laden ‘fear that what we had meant, and what alone could justify it all, was not the meaning and the justification of those who will decide’ – Lippmann’s words, which handily summarise the long, tormented mea culpas produced by liberal hawks after the catastrophe in Iraq.

What neither hard-headed politicians nor their intellectual dupes fully understood was how the rhetoric of liberalism and democracy had gone down in the colonised world. Certainly, Wilson, working deep in a world run by and for white men, could have little sense of the bitterness and disillusionment felt by his ‘darkie’ admirers. But the excuse of racial and intellectual seclusion could not be claimed by apparently liberal politicians and journalists who stridently echoed Wilson’s rhetoric after the collapse of Communism when the world seemed riper for remaking, more ready to absorb Western values while fulfilling Western interests, than at any time since 1919.

‘We are all internationalists now,’ Tony Blair declared to the Chicago Economic Club in April 1999, in the midst of bombing Serbia. ‘In the end,’ he said, ‘values and interests merge. If we can establish and spread the values of liberty, the rule of law, human rights and an open society then that is in our national interests too.’ Dazzled by the wealth and power of fin-de-siècle America (as though returning the compliment after decades of anglophilia among the American ruling class), Blair and other New Labourites turned out to be the most eager European consumers of Wilson’s potpourri of values and interests. Their eloquence proved useful to the most Wilsonian – but also the most inarticulate – of American presidents, and his cronies.

The victories of the Cold War – and the giddy speculation that history had reached the ideological terminus of liberal democracy – revived illusions of omnipotence among an Anglo-American political and media elite that has always known very little about the modern world it claims to have made. Consequently, almost every event since the end of the Cold War – the rise of radical Islam, of India and China, the assertiveness of oil-rich Russia, Iran and Venezuela – has come as a shock, a rude reminder that the natives of Delhi, Cairo and Beijing have geopolitical ambitions of their own, not to mention a sense of history marked by resentment and suspicion of the metropolitan West. The liberal internationalists persist, trying to revive the Wilsonian moment in places where Anglo-American liberalism has been seen as an especially aggressive form of hypocrisy. Increasingly, however, they expose themselves as the new provincials, dangerously blundering about in a volatile world.

Monday, April 24, 2006


by Jean Baudrillard

from New Left Review 37, January-February 2006

Fifteen hundred cars had to burn in a single night and then, on a descending scale, nine hundred, five hundred, two hundred, for the daily ‘norm’ to be reached again, and people to realize that ninety cars on average are torched every night in this gentle France of ours. A sort of eternal flame, like that under the Arc de Triomphe, burning in honour of the Unknown Immigrant. Known now, after a lacerating process of revision—but still in trompe l’oeil.

The French exception is no more, the ‘French model’ collapsing before our eyes. But the French can reassure themselves that it is not just theirs but the whole Western model which is disintegrating; and not just under external assault—acts of terrorism, Africans storming the barbed wire at Melilla—but also from within. The first conclusion to be drawn from the autumn riots annuls all pious official homilies. A society which is itself disintegrating has no chance of integrating its immigrants, who are at once the products and savage analysts of its decay. The harsh reality is that the rest of us, too, are faced with a crisis of identity and disinheritance; the fissures of the banlieues are merely symptoms of the dissociation of a society at odds with itself. As Hélé Béji [1] has remarked, the social question of immigration is only a starker illustration of the European’s exile within his own society. Europe’s citizens are no longer integrated into ‘European’—or ‘French’—values, and can only try to palm them off on others.

‘Integration’ is the official line. But integration into what? The sorry spectacle of ‘successful’ integration—into a banalized, technized, upholstered way of life, carefully shielded from self-questioning—is that of we French ourselves. To talk of ‘integration’ in the name of some indefinable notion of France is merely to signal its lack.

It is French—more broadly, European—society which, by its very process of socialization, day by day secretes the relentless discrimination of which immigrants are the designated victims, though not the only ones. This is the change on the unequal bargain of ‘democracy’. This society faces a far harder test than any external threat: that of its own absence, its loss of reality. Soon it will be defined solely by the foreign bodies that haunt its periphery: those it has expelled, but who are now ejecting it from itself. It is their violent interpellation that reveals what has been coming apart, and so offers the possibility for awareness. If French—if European—society were to succeed in ‘integrating’ them, it would in its own eyes cease to exist.

Yet French or European discrimination is only the micro-model of a worldwide divide which, under the ironical sign of globalization, is bringing two irreconcilable universes face to face. The same analysis can be reprised at global level. International terrorism is but a symptom of the split personality of a world power at odds with itself. As to finding a solution, the same delusion applies at every level, from the banlieues to the House of Islam: the fantasy that raising the rest of the world to Western living standards will settle matters. The fracture is far deeper than that. Even if the assembled Western powers really wanted to close it—which there is every reason to doubt—they could not. The very mechanisms of their own survival and superiority would prevent them; mechanisms which, through all the pious talk of universal values, serve only to reinforce Western power and so to foment the threat of a coalition of forces that dream of destroying it.

But France, or Europe, no longer has the initiative. It no longer controls events, as it did for centuries, but is at the mercy of a succession of unforeseeable blow-backs. Those who deplore the ideological bankruptcy of the West should recall that ‘God smiles at those he sees denouncing evils of which they are the cause’. If the explosion of the banlieues is thus directly linked to the world situation, it is also—a fact which is strangely never discussed—connected to another recent episode, solicitously occluded and misrepresented in just the same way: the No in the eu Constitutional referendum. Those who voted No without really knowing why—perhaps simply because they did not wish to play the game into which they had so often been trapped; because they too refused to be integrated into the wondrous Yes of a ‘ready for occupancy’ Europe—their No was the voice of those jettisoned by the system of representation: exiles too, like the immigrants themselves, from the process of socialization. There was the same recklessness, the same irresponsibility in the act of scuppering the eu as in the young immigrants’ burning of their own neighbourhoods, their own schools; like the blacks in Watts and Detroit in the 1960s. Many now live, culturally and politically, as immigrants in a country which can no longer offer them a definition of national belonging. They are disaffiliated, as Robert Castel [2] has put it.

But it is a short step from disaffiliation to desafío—defiance. All the excluded, the disaffiliated, whether from the banlieues, immigrants or ‘native-born’, at one point or another turn their disaffiliation into defiance and go onto the offensive. It is their only way to stop being humiliated, discarded or taken in hand. In the wake of the November fires, mainstream political sociology spoke of integration, employment, security. I am not so sure that the rioters want to be reintegrated on these lines. Perhaps they consider the French way of life with the same condescension or indifference with which it views theirs. Perhaps they prefer to see cars burning than to dream of one day driving them. Perhaps their reaction to an over-calculated solicitude would instinctively be the same as to exclusion and repression.

The superiority of Western culture is sustained only by the desire of the rest of the world to join it. When there is the least sign of refusal, the slightest ebbing of that desire, the West loses its seductive appeal in its own eyes. Today it is precisely the ‘best’ it has to offer—cars, schools, shopping centres—that are torched and ransacked. Even nursery schools: the very tools through which the car-burners were to be integrated and mothered. ‘Screw your mother’ might be their organizing slogan. And the more there are attempts to ‘mother’ them, the more they will. Of course, nothing will prevent our enlightened politicians and intellectuals from considering the autumn riots as minor incidents on the road to a democratic reconciliation of all cultures. Everything indicates that on the contrary, they are successive phases of a revolt whose end is not in sight.

[1] [Tunisian writer, author of L’Imposture culturelle (1997).]

[2] [Sociologist, author of L’Insécurité sociale (2003).]

Saturday, February 25, 2006

Short Cuts : Comment on the cartoon controversy

by Jeremy Harding [from London Review of Books Vol. 28 No. 4 dated 23 February 2006 ]

The row over the cartoons of the Prophet has pitted freedom of speech against the concept of blasphemy and looks at first sight like a head-on clash of secular and religious traditions. This is pretty much how the French press came to see it once the trouble erupted again, following the reprints in France Soir. It’s the kind of problem that crops up from time to time, said Charb, a cartoonist for Charlie Hebdo, and the best solution is for offended parties to go to law. Right-wing Catholics and fringe Muslim groups had already had a go at Charlie Hebdo in the past and they’d done so in the courts. That struck him as reasonable. But then, as he hastened to add in an interview for Libération, Charlie hadn’t lost the cases. That was before it published the 12 Danish cartoons plus a handful of its own and had another case against it thrown out on a technicality.

The press in Continental Europe has gone about insulting Muslims, and defending its right to do so, with a zeal which ought to alert us to the fact that this is an ‘all-faith’ conflict, with staunch believers in either corner: ‘secular’ and ‘religious’ are more the trappings of the fighters’ retinue. The solemn talk about democratic values, the dire imprecations of the ultra-godly, the pious tantrums: these are among the reasons neither opponent can quite pick the other out, let alone the end of his own arm. From time to time it must be tempting to take a wild swing. Torching a legation in the Middle East is one possibility. Another is to flail around with such commendable gusto as to propel oneself over the ropes and into the crowd, leaving the adversary untouched. In a recent opinion piece for Le Figaro, Renaud Girard, a senior foreign correspondent, gave a spirited show of how this is best achieved, on an off day, by an intelligent heavyweight (‘grand reporteur au service étranger’). ‘If the 5000 Muslims who demonstrated in Brussels are so horrified by the Western values of freedom and secularism,’ he declared . . . the rest is easy to guess.

Not every advocate of the right to break a religious taboo believes that European Muslims who find it upsetting should pack up their grievances and head for Saudi Arabia – Girard’s destination of choice. There are more serious points to make. Many insist very reasonably on a qualitative difference between acts of imaginative or rhetorical violence, on the one hand, and acts of physical violence, on the other. Yet even here it’s hard to draw the line. Lynndie England, the little chicken-plucker at Abu Ghraib, would have winked at the distinction: with a bit of ingenuity you can inflict lasting damage without using outright physical violence. Editors, reporters, cartoonists and cameramen, who spend so much of their time trying to maximise the effects of language and imagery, are the first to acknowledge the power of the symbolic order. Preachers and politicians understand it. Abu Hamza gets it.

The source of this row was a debatable wish on the part of the Danish children’s author Kåre Bluitgen to find an illustrator for his book about Islam. Artists seemed to know about representations of the Prophet and at the time – last summer – he couldn’t find anyone to do the job. (Apparently the book has since been published, with illustrations.) The editors at Jyllands-Posten, horrified like the rest of the Danish press and public about the murder of Theo van Gogh, the man who used to call Jesus ‘the rotten fish of Nazareth’, saw this as a dire state of affairs. There was also anger about the nervy cancellation of a screening of van Gogh’s Submission (screenplay by Ayaan Hirsi Ali) at the European Parliament press centre last April. The paper commissioned the cartoons in a bid to fight the insidious pressure of ‘self-censorship’. Now a largely conservative Continental press has lined up like a bunch of drunk undergraduates, convinced of their rectitude, to moon at conservative Muslim sentiment.

‘Slay those who insult Islam’: a placard at the demonstration outside the Danish Embassy in London. This kind of ‘Islamic’ dissent and the people who express it simply strike us as grotesque: full-dress aliens, perfectly wardrobed as the Other, ranting fire and brimstone. But it may be safer, in trying to explain why a free press is so important – and a press that is free to give offence – not to fall back on the word ‘democracy’. Many people who think like the demonstrators, and millions who don’t, remember the Islamic Salvation Front being denied their victory at the polls in Algeria in 1991 (it was the wrong result); they see all the tut-tutting about the recent Hamas victory in the Palestinian elections (wrong result); they watch as the murderous gift of democracy is bestowed on Iraq. In these contexts, you would be likely to approach democracy in the way a scientist examines a dangerous virus or a villager circles the wreck of a downed aircraft. A better argument is surely that Europeans were inveterate scribblers, muckrakers, sedition-mongers, pamphleteers and blasphemers long before the advent of universal suffrage and that we wish this admirable tradition to survive in the era of consumer democracy and its dominant Anglo-Saxon version: democracy-as-shopping-and-bombing. That’s humane, precision shopping, of course.

In return for acknowledging this tradition? The possibility that the press won’t always worship at the shrine of its own self-importance. There is something tacky and melodramatic, especially post-Communism, about European editors rediscovering self-censorship as a sinister, internalised instruction that holds them back from the fullness of democratic genius. Earlier generations might have thought of the same impulse as a kind of acumen. In any case self-censorship isn’t an entirely useless faculty: it’s part of the wider set of restraints that can help brash, in-your-face cultures from toppling into utter incontinence.

Anyone who visited Bradford ten years after the publication of The Satanic Verses and canvassed opinion about the whole affair would have found a healthy self-consciousness among the city’s Muslim community that included a real measure of shame. But that was before 9/11 and the current misadventures in the Middle East; Western opinion was less convinced, in those days, that an ‘open’ society must draw its enemies into the open, as the European press has done. How this differs from piling one enmity on top of another is probably an issue they mean to get around to, when they have a moment.

Imperial Margarine: critique of books by Niall Ferguson

by Robin Blackburn [from New Left Review 35, September-October 2005]

The often disappointing results of decolonization have bred a revisionism that forgets why colonialism was discredited in the first place. The British historian Niall Ferguson became an outstanding popularizer of this current with the publication of Empire: How Britain Created the Modern World and Colossus: the Rise and Fall of the American Empire. Written as if to teach us statesmen and citizens how to be good imperialists, they have become bestsellers, and an obligatory reference point in debates on empire. Their author—who in an important earlier work, The Pity of War, had shone a withering spotlight on the patriotic militarism of the Great War—has gone in quick succession from Oxford to New York University, and thence to Harvard.

Ferguson’s attention to economic history is welcome, since it is a sub-branch of the discipline ignored only at great intellectual cost. He is more cautiously to be commended for calling empire by its name. He believes that Britain invented capitalism and, with it, what he sees as the most valuable ideas and institutions of the modern world—the English language, private property, the rule of law, parliamentary structures, individual freedom and Protestant Christianity. Admirers would see inclusion of Protestantism as an example of impish fun, tweaking the tail of the politically correct, but we can be sure that Ferguson is quite serious. The complacent British self-regard of Empire easily segues into endorsement for American national messianism in Colossus, with the Anglo-American imperial formula—which he dubs ‘Anglobalization’—offering the colonized the best hope of capitalist success. As a historian of the English-speaking peoples Ferguson seeks to rescue Winston Churchill’s account from its contemporary entombment in countless forbidding leather-bound volumes. He offers a pacier narrative, garnished with good quotes from the great man; but the neo-conservative gloss he adds to the Churchillian vision would surely have inspired reservations in someone who, after all, helped to found Britain’s welfare state. By contrast, Ferguson sternly insists in Colossus that if the us is to make a success of empire it will have to cut social programmes to the bone.

Ferguson’s claim about the decisive contribution which empire makes to development is meant to hold for the future as well as the past. But the evidence he relies on is very selective: the only empires he really has time for are those of Britain and the United States. His failure to introduce any proper comparative dimension is in striking contrast to the serious attention he gives to all the major belligerents in The Pity of War. While he exhibited a command of a wide range of German and Austrian sources in that book, the bibliographies of Colossus and Empire do not include a single work not in English. The overall decline in the quality of Ferguson’s work between Pity and these two later books is a performative rebuttal of his faith in the magic of the market, since they were hastily produced in response to demand.

While good yarns make Empire readable, Ferguson misses, or misconstrues, crucial aspects of imperial logistics and political economy. It is quite a feat to write the history of the British empire and omit any real discussion of the Royal Navy during the critical period 1650–1815. This is Henry v without the battle of Agincourt. Only a quite modern state could have built, manned and supplied a permanent force of over a hundred ships of the line. If Ferguson has consulted the work of N. A. M. Rodgers—an author whose outlook he would find very congenial—he could have given readers a glimpse of what life aboard an 18th-century warship was really like and explained why the British outgunned the French. And if he had consulted Robert Brenner’s Merchants and Revolution and John Brewer’s Sinews of Empire—authors he might find less congenial—he could have achieved a better grasp of the economic foundations. Likewise, Ferguson gives a lively sketch of the us empire in the days of ‘manifest destiny’ and the ‘big stick’ in the early chapters of Colossus, but pays little attention to the huge diplomatic and economic effort that subsequently went into the construction of a global chain of military bases (an aspect well covered by Chalmers Johnson in Sorrows of Empire). The suspicion grows, confirmed by his enthusiasm for Bush’s invasion of Iraq, that Ferguson, like other neo-conservatives, is seduced by the romance and rhetoric of empire, but when it comes to its logistics and economic rationale he is in denial.

The rhetoric and romance are dark-hued. Ferguson allows that Anglo-American empire involved much destruction and atrocity—but with ultimately beneficial results. His case is that dragging the world into modernity was—is—bound to be a very difficult and ugly proceeding. Those on the receiving end of Anglo-American imperialism are lucky since at least British and American imperial tutelage proved more benign than that of other modern empires, such as the Germans, the Japanese, the Soviets, or even the French, Portuguese and Spanish—though little is heard of these. If you could find an Algonquin or native Tasmanian descendant they would probably not agree. Ferguson does not shrink from considering the crimes of colonization—one chapter in Empire is called ‘White Plague’—but he constructs a sort of cosmic balance sheet in which, as with the Bank of England in its heyday, the credits comfortably outweigh the liabilities; the empire’s misdeeds are redeemed by its eventual achievements. Someone had to foster the advance of capitalism and representative institutions, and the international order has to be policed by someone. Surely John Bull and Uncle Sam did—and do—a better job than any likely alternatives?

Ferguson more than once reminds us of the culminating moment, justifying all that had gone before, when the British empire stood alone against Nazi barbarism. His apology for the imperial past is projected into an unending future, as if we were forever frozen in the year 1940, facing the grim alternatives that were then present. (There are, of course, still many Britons—some, like Ferguson, not even born in 1940—who will go to their graves stammering about the ‘finest hour’.) While he rightly draws attention to the imperial nature of Britain’s war effort he fails to register the growing disenchantment with empire of many Britons, especially soldiers—as witness the proceedings of the Cairo ‘armed forces parliament’ in 1944.

The empires of the modern period slighted the humanity of subject peoples, and sacrificed the latter to the insatiable demands of a capitalist accumulation process. In these respects they marked a step down from their supposed model, since Rome did not foster racial hierarchy, did not expose peoples’ livelihoods to market forces and eventually extended citizenship to all. Ferguson sees it differently. He admits that Britain’s ‘first empire’ was marred by pillage and rapine, with a swollen slave trade from Africa, looted cities in the Americas and horrendous famine in Bengal. But the settlement of the North American littoral was a great achievement and a more responsible imperialism, born in the 1780s, was able to purge the empire of its early excesses and to discover more graceful ways of letting go than were in evidence in 1776.

This approach misses the systemic features of imperial exploitation of the colonized and enslaved. Consider Ferguson’s treatment of colonial slavery. He readily acknowledges that the slave trade was an abomination and briefly evokes the ‘sweet tooth’ of the British consumer. But he fails to explain why there were so many more British than, say, Spanish or French, consumers, even though the obvious answer is that his beloved capitalism had made far greater inroads in Britain than on the continent. At one point in Empire he bizarrely says, of a country that had blazed the trail of capitalist agriculture, that it was ‘economically unremarkable’ in 1615.

Ferguson’s favoured theme is empire’s economic success and yet he ignores the enormous contribution made by plantation slavery to British economic growth in the 18th and early 19th century. Empire contains no account of the working day of slaves on Caribbean sugar plantations, nor of how such slaves kept body and soul together, nor of the value of slave produce in imperial and European trade—around a third in 1801–2. Attending to these aspects would have confirmed some of his most cherished theses—but at the expense of others. Thus trade with the plantation zone furnished Britain with a large mass of profits, elements of a new world of exotic consumption (sugar, tobacco, dye stuffs) and the crucial raw material for the Industrial Revolution (cotton), as well as an important market for British manufacturing exports. Other parts of the Atlantic system—the fisheries, the New England provision merchants, the slave traders—all contributed to an Atlantic boom based on slave toil as much as on domestic wage labour. If he wished, Ferguson could have gloried in the fact that this Atlantic traffic in slaves and slave produce was propelled by the momentum of free trade, spilling beyond the borders of an increasingly ineffective mercantile system. The very term laissez faire was coined by a colonial trader. But he overlooks this and instead exaggerates the role of the chartered companies.

Ferguson’s focus on the slave trade and neglect of what fuelled it gives a new twist to the dictum of a great imperial historian, whose work he ignores. Eric Williams, the West Indian nationalist leader, author of Capitalism and Slavery (1944) and long-time prime minister of Trinidad, once observed that British historians often wrote as if their country had only undertaken the largest branch of the Atlantic slave trade of any colonial power ‘in order to have the satisfaction of suppressing it’. Ferguson is light on sanctimony—unabashed relish in imperial might is more his style. But he offers consolation too: ‘what is very striking about the history of the Empire is that whenever the British were behaving despotically, there was almost always a liberal critique of that behaviour from within British society.’ His method here is uncannily reminiscent of what Roland Barthes, in Mythologies, called ‘Operation Margarine’:

take the established value which you wish to restore or develop and first lavishly display its pettiness, the injustice which it produces . . . then . . . save it in spite of itself, or rather by the heavy curse of its blemishes . . . the Established Order is no longer anything but a Manichean compound and therefore inevitable, one which wins on both counts, and is therefore beneficial.

Barthes’s term is an hommage to a French fifties tv ad which first concedes that the oily yellow spread is an unappealing substitute, but then insists that those brave enough to try it will be pleasantly surprised. The analogy strikes a chord here both because British consumers bought margarine from Unilever, a quintessentially colonial company, and because colonialism was, at best, an inferior substitute for modernization.

Ferguson’s abstracted account of the slave trade is followed by a salute for evangelical abolitionism, nicely evoked in the life of John Newton, and for the spirit of the Clapham Sect. We never learn how or why the abolitionists eventually prevailed, nor does he describe the contribution of the anti-Establishment brands of Non-Conformity, whose role in the 1830s was more important than that of the Clapham Sect. Ferguson is happier recounting the brutal deeds of pirates and slave traders than he is with taking the measure of an accumulation process that sponsored a gigantic—and in some ways very modern—system of forced labour, with meticulous record-keeping and close invigilation. Ferguson’s own moral book-keeping is suggested by a brief comment on the colonial contract labour of the late 19th century: ‘There is no question that the majority of [indentured labourers] suffered great hardship . . . But once again we cannot pretend that this mobilization of cheap and probably underemployed Asian labour to grow rubber and dig gold had no economic value.’ Or as ‘Operation Margarine’ has it: ‘What does it matter, after all, if Order is a little brutal or a little blind, when it allows us to live cheaply?’

India was the mud-sill of the second British empire just as slavery had been of the first. Modern scholarship endorses nationalist historiography’s bleak verdict on British rule in the sub-continent, which de-industrialized India and fatally weakened its agriculture. The work of Amartya Sen, recently extended and developed by Mike Davis, has now given us some explanation for the recurring famines in British India, with millions dying of hunger in the 1870s, 1890s, 1900s and 1940s. A political order that excluded the huge majority of Indian subjects, and a colonial government blinded by laissez-faire economics and Malthusian beliefs about over-population led to repeated disaster. Ferguson, however, treats the famines of the 19th- and 20th-century Raj as a minor issue, taking place off-stage and quite uncharacteristic of the exalted conduct of the Indian Civil Service. After a sympathetic account of the lordly but lonely status of the imperial official running a province, Ferguson observes in a footnote: ‘It is fashionable to allege that the British authorities did nothing to relieve the drought-induced famines of the period.’ The belittling use of the word ‘fashionable’ apparently excuses him from addressing the argument. Instead he supplies an example of another lone Magistrate of the Second Class, rendering the angst and ‘hearty breakfast’ of the ics man with feeling while leaving unplumbed the reasons for the hopelessly inadequate official response. Ferguson believes that decolonization was hasty and premature nearly everywhere, and likes to point to the often disappointing results of independence as justification for a new imperialism. But in the case of India he fails to confront the fact that independence did end the ravages of mass famine. The empire’s failure simply to keep many millions of its Indian subjects alive is a profound challenge to his central argument.

Without leaving the familiar confines of national historiography, Ferguson would nevertheless like to make large claims for British, and later American, empire. He draws on David Landes’s Wealth and Poverty of Nations to establish the key preconditions of economic advance. Distilling what he has gleaned from Landes, Ferguson identifies a set of crucial institutional ingredients for successful development. The ruling power should secure rights of private property and personal liberty; enforce rights of contract; and provide stable, honest, moderate, efficient and non-greedy government. Colonial rule delivered these conditions and persuaded investors that their money was safe.

If we assemble a list of the most dramatic examples of economic breakthrough and advance it soon becomes clear that the items listed by Ferguson and Landes are optional; indeed, that candidates should be advised, like those taking an old-fashioned exam paper, to attempt only two questions. Britain 1750–1830; the United States 1790–1860; Germany 1870–1923; Japan 1880–1940; Russia 1890–1914 and 1930–50; France 1950–70; Spain 1960–90; the South East Asian ‘tigers’ 1960–90; China 1980–2004. It is regrettable but true that several of these industrializing societies scored highly on corruption and greed, and would have low marks for human rights, democracy and clarity of property rights. But indubitably each of these states was possessed of that real independence which, by definition, colonies do not enjoy. Indeed these transformative episodes bear out Paul Baran’s classic argument in The Political Economy of Growth (1954) that autonomous states would be best able to attain economic progress.

Notwithstanding an empire that covered a quarter of the world’s land surface, the British had little success in spreading the institutional package Ferguson mentions except to colonies of settlement in North America and Australasia. (The survival of parliamentary democracy in India could be counted only in part, since it was, after all, the Indian nationalist movement which pressed for and utilized representative structures in the colonial period.) As Ferguson acknowledges, the economic advance of these regions was based on wholesale dispossession of the natives. Apparently he sees the latter as redeemed in the long run by the economic and political progress that it made possible, rather as fellow travellers believed that Stalin should be condoned because of the Dneprostroi Dam and victories of the Red Army.

The destruction of native peoples by European conquerors provoked the memorable indictments of Las Casas and Montaigne, Voltaire and Chateaubriand. But these are not mentioned by Ferguson—perhaps on the grounds that they were insufficiently Protestant and Anglo-Saxon. Instead he asks rhetorically how the settler–native encounter could have had any other result. And however brutal the history of Anglo-Saxon settler colonialism and ethnic cleansing, he urges that it was not as deliberate and cruel as Nazi and Stalinist imperialism. Formerly, enlightened apologists of empire would lament the disappearance of indigenous peoples. But today’s imperial realists have no time for such mawkishness. Ferguson brusquely insists that the ‘Anglicization of North America and Australasia’ was one of the British empire’s great achievements.

The subtitle of Empire—How Britain Made the Modern World—should have given Ferguson some pause since the sad state of the world does indeed reflect the legacy of Britain’s empire and of other modern imperiums. Many of the most intractable communal divisions were deliberately fostered, if not invented, by the imperial policy of divide and rule; while at a deeper level, the division of the world into rich and poor regions was first established by empire. Any enumeration of the world’s most dangerous and difficult communal conflicts would include the stand-off between Pakistan and India, and the Arab–Israeli clash. The partition of Cyprus and the still unresolved conflict in Northern Ireland, the deep racial tensions in Guyana and Fiji would also figure on such a list. In the post-apartheid era, the racial legacy of empire and colonization is being gradually dismantled in South Africa, but problems remain in many parts of the continent. Ferguson urges that ethnic sentiment and division long preceded colonization. He rightly observes that expatriate colonizers were often the driving force behind injurious racial privileges and distinctions. Yet liberal imperial strategists from Locke to Gladstone went along with colonial racism because that is what empire was based on. Nor does he register the fondness of imperial administrators for cultivating the so-called ‘martial races’ at the expense of other colonial subjects. Whitehall policy-makers did not always like the results their strategies produced and the communal fault lines were not always of their making, but imperial favouritism nevertheless has much to answer for—after all, they were in charge. (Likewise, today’s neo-imperialists bear some responsibility for aggravating communal divisions in the Balkans and Iraq.)

The division of the world into rich and poor regions roughly follows the former boundaries between imperial and colonized areas, even though it has sometimes been partially counteracted or qualified by resistance or by prior institutional or natural endowments. The colonial experience weakened the ability of the colonized to negotiate an advantageous relationship to the emergence of a capitalist world market, and often condemned them to subordination and neglect. In Colossus, Ferguson cites the disappointing performance of most ex-colonies as part of his case for empire, when it would be more logical to conclude that the empires did not, in fact, really equip the colonized with survival skills. The poor record of Britain’s African former colonies leads him to plead that ‘even the best institutions work less well in excessively hot, disease-ridden, or landlocked places’. He concedes that India’s overall annual rate of growth between 1820 and 1950—0.12 per cent—was pitifully low but refuses to hold selfish imperial arrangements responsible because ‘the supposed “drain” of capital from India to Britain turns out to have been comparatively modest: only around 1 per cent of Indian national income between the 1860s and the 1930s, according to one estimate of the export surplus.’ But obviously a country growing at only 0.12 per cent a year would have had many good uses for that 1 per cent lost annually. Ferguson himself points out that Britain’s school-enrolment rate was eight times that of India’s in 1913.

Empires did not invent the uneven development of capitalism but they did much to consolidate it. Having inherited or established a hierarchical structure of advantage, they reinforced it. Plantation slavery, for instance, brought great wealth to some in the Atlantic colonies, but it did not generate sustained and independent growth in the plantation zone, as the post-emancipation experience of the us South, Caribbean and Brazilian North-East testify. The infrastructural improvements made by empires were those needed to facilitate the movement of troops and the export of commodities; other purposes were disregarded, often to catastrophic effect. In a process which Mike Davis has called ‘the origins of the third world’, Western incursions into China from the Opium War onwards weakened the Qing authorities and prevented them from maintaining the country’s vital system of hydraulic defences. With its customs service run by a consortium of foreign powers, China suffered a de-industrialization almost as severe as that of India.

Ferguson’s neoliberal agenda leads him to scant the way that non-Anglo-Saxon empires promoted economic integration and coordination by non-market means. In an off-the-cuff remark in Empire explaining ‘why it was that Britain was able to overhaul her Iberian rivals’, he fails to explain the source of Spanish wealth but says of Britain that ‘she had to settle for colonizing the unpromising wastes of Virginia and New England, rather than the eminently lootable cities of Mexico and Peru’. Both the Spanish and the British certainly looted American silver and gold. But Ferguson does not explain how this rival species of empire worked and seems to regard it as economically less impressive than the record of British settlement. Spanish administrators were, in fact, innovators who mainly relied on wage labour to mine and process the silver ore. In place of simple ‘looting’ they adopted a tribute system, echoing Inca and Aztec arrangements, which required native villages to supply either labour, foodstuffs or textiles to the royal warehouses. The king claimed a fifth of the silver mined. But he garnered much more by offering mining concessions and selling the tribute food and clothing in his warehouses to the wage-earning miners. It was this ingenious system, not looting, which sustained a highly profitable system of exploitation for nearly three centuries. This was just one example of the productive organization promoted by Iberian imperialism and explains why the Mexican and Peruvian elites were so reluctant to break with empire. With Spanish American independence all such coordination ceased, and entry into Britain’s informal ‘empire of free trade’ led to economic stagnation or regression.

Empires could promote a limited and usually self-interested species of colonial development. Often, as today, the imperial impulse stemmed from overweening confidence and missionary zeal as much as from sober calculation of material gain. When empires spread they did so partly because they could, partly because they were operating within a rivalrous multi-state system, and partly because, in metropolitan regions where capitalism was taking hold, consumers wanted colonial products. The Chinese imperial authorities did not bother to colonize Africa, though it would have been perfectly possible for them to do so. Starting with the Portuguese, the European maritime empires entered the lists, firstly because they saw an advantage they did not want to yield to others and secondly because those newly in receipt of rents, fees, profits and wages had a thirst for exotic commodities.

The emphasis which Ferguson puts on the imperial export of a neoliberal institutional package places him squarely in the camp of those who believe that modernization and bourgeois democratic revolution can be introduced from outside. But in Colossus he warns that, as presently configured, the American imperial project suffers from fatal flaws since the us public is not willing to make the sacrifices necessary for it to succeed. On the one hand, very few elite or middle-class Americans are willing to spend many years of their life in far-away places introducing the natives to the secrets of Anglo-Saxon civilization. On the other, and despite mounting deficits, the us voting public is wedded to increasingly expensive entitlement programmes like Social Security and Medicare which simply leave no budgetary room for extensive overseas imperial missions.

Ferguson argues that Ivy League graduates will not flock for duty in distant and inhospitable outposts as graduates of Oxford did in the early 1900s: ‘America’s brightest and best aspire not to govern Mesopotamia but to manage mtv; not to rule the Hejaz but to run a hedge fund.’ Like a number of his sallies this may be amusing, but also misleading. In a new book, Imperial Grunts, his fellow conservative Robert Kaplan shows how the us political economy and commercial culture furnish conditions which offer many openings to Army recruiters. From Kaplan one learns that in the newly occupied lands, the visiting embedded journalist will be greeted with the cry, ‘Welcome to Injun country!’ Kaplan evidently finds the soldier’s life as stimulating as do, he believes, those who signed up because they could not find other work or because it might offer them the chance of a college education later. He writes that those who have not experienced combat have missed something of the ‘American experience’, something ‘exotic, romantic, exciting, bloody and emotionally painful, sometimes all at once’. Indeed Kaplan writes that ‘it was ironic to keep reading stories about unhappy, over-deployed reservists, because those in the Special Operations community whom I had met here and in Eastern Afghanistan were having the time of their lives’. Kaplan is no Kipling, but Ferguson underestimates the culture industry’s ability to maintain a supply of ‘imperial grunts’.

He likewise underestimates the ability of the us education system to act as a magnet for overseas students who, under certain conditions, may well act as servants of American corporations, or ambassadors for liberal institutions or neoliberal economics, when and if they return to their home countries. So the personnel deficit may not, in itself, be decisive. There is the difficulty, however, that overseas graduates and PhDs may be convinced liberals yet fail to see how us imperialism is really promoting the values they have imbibed in its universities and colleges. They could well be swift to detect hollow or cynical uses of the rhetoric of liberation, especially if they remain affected by the national culture of their homeland.

Ferguson believes that the United States today faces a classic ‘guns or butter’ dilemma. If it faces up to its world responsibilities—as he hopes it will—then he believes it must take the axe to its domestic social programmes; ‘guns and margarine’, as it were. If Americans can steel themselves to sacrifice comfort at home they might just be able to live up to their destiny overseas. The ‘entitlement crisis’—the difficulty of honouring the promises embodied in the Social Security and Medicare programmes—is greatly exaggerated by Ferguson and neo-conservative economists like Peter Peterson and Laurence Kotlikoff. On the other hand, liberal and radical analysts often go too far in playing down the likely cost of baby-boomer retirement and medical care in an ageing society. After all, the number of Americans aged over 65 is set to rise from 36 million in 2002 to 70 million in 2031.

Of course, a rich society like the us could absorb all likely ageing costs if it was prepared belatedly to follow the advice tendered by Representative Schuyler Colfax in 1862 and find a way to exact a levy on the presently untaxed mass of large share-holdings. (Colfax advocated a levy on stock-holdings in the same speech as that in which he successfully pleaded for an income tax, the first in us history.) The real problem is not an absence of resources to be mobilized but, as with France’s Ancien Régime in 1788, the ability of wealthy individuals and corporations to protect themselves from effective taxation. As I have suggested elsewhere, the best way of forcing corporations to pay their share to the upkeep of a social infrastructure from which they all benefit would be to adopt the share levy proposed by Rudolf Meidner, the former chief economist of the Swedish trade unions. Requiring corporations to donate shares each year equivalent to a tenth of their profits to collective social funds would be one way to prepare for the financial strains of an ageing society.

Ferguson’s hostility to Social Security chimes in with Bush’s floundering attempt to initiate privatization of the programme, as demanded by so many neo-cons and neoliberals. It is almost as if war and empire are not being undertaken for the stated reasons, but for domestic purposes, because only war fever, and a climate of fear, can render acceptable the sacrifice of working- and middle-class social protection. Thus regime change and aggression abroad sets the scene for social counter-revolution at home. In The Shield of Achilles, Philip Bobbitt, perhaps a more influential writer and thinker than Ferguson, chillingly announces that a defining feature of the new ‘market state’ will be that it will no longer feel bound to protect the welfare of its citizens. There is a further synergy here between domestic and foreign policy. Just as it used to be said that Britain’s empire was ‘a system of out-relief for the aristocracy’—who filled all those governorships—so today the string of overseas bases is workfare for those who cannot find a decent job at home.

Many of the flaws and fantasies of the neo-imperial project stem from the domestic revolution which it seeks to project on the wider world. Thus the government of an advanced country can raise real resources through the privatization of national assets. But in the context of an underdeveloped, even if resource-rich, society, a programme of privatization simply benefits the large foreign companies who have the money to buy state assets. Ferguson exaggerates the gains made by colonized peoples in the imperial epoch. But the colonial states not only built railways and harbours; they also set up marketing boards and stabilization funds for key colonial products. The neo-imperial project wants to make such state initiative impossible.

Ferguson supported the overthrow of Saddam Hussein and the occupation of Iraq because they would help to bring the Middle East under American control—he still argues this as justification for the war in Colossus. In pursuit of this objective the occupation has dismantled much of the Iraqi state, established a lien on its assets, partitioned the country and set the scene for a tangle of bloody conflicts, some nationalist, some anti-imperialist, and some virulently communalist. The occupation has incurred the hostility of huge numbers of Iraqis who loathed Saddam. This became clear on the second anniversary of the overthrow of Saddam on 10 April 2005, when 300,000 Iraqis demonstrated in Baghdad for the withdrawal of the occupying forces. So far as the scourge of terrorism is concerned, the illegitimate us presence has only served to exacerbate the problem. The jihadis led by Al-Zarqawi are neither numerous nor popular but they can only be isolated by a strong, indigenous, broad-based and unimpeachably Iraqi government—not by an uneasy alliance of us lackeys and Iranian stooges. The us invasion has cost 100,000 lives and brought about a rapid deterioration of public services that were already badly damaged by bombing raids and sanctions. Oil output is trickling and vulnerable. Only Kurdistan might offer the us the possibility of secure bases—but then it would have done so without an invasion. A hard-boiled observer such as Ferguson should have to conclude that the game is not worth the candle.

Friday, February 10, 2006

Film Review: Alphaville

[by Andrew Sarris: The Criterion Collection]§ion=essay&page=1

When Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville opened the 1965 New York Film Festival, the American Civil Liberties Union Benefit audience seemed genuinely baffled by the abrupt shifts in tone: from satirically tongue-in-cheek futurism, to a parody of private-eye mannerisms, to a wildly romantic allegory depicting a computer-controlled society at war with artists, thinkers, and lovers.

Alphaville is science fiction without special effects. Godard couldn’t afford them in 1965 or ever, but he probably wouldn’t have wanted them even if he’d had unlimited financing. His whole theme, imagination versus logic, is consistent with his deployment of Paris as it was in the ’60s—or at least, those portions of Paris which struck Godard as architectural nightmares of impersonality. Sub-Nabokovian jokes on brand names abound. There is much talk of societies in other galaxies, but their only manifestation is the Ford Galaxy that Eddie Constantine’s Lemmy Caution (a low-rent French version of Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe) moves about in. Most of Alphaville is nocturnal or claustrophobically indoors. Yet there is an exhilarating release in many of the images and camera movements because of Godard’s uncanny ability to evoke privileged moments from many movies of the past.

Alphaville was never meant to shock, depress, or disgust, and thus it seems as decorous and decent in 1998 as it did in 1965. And it is the work of one man, one recognizable man, not the work of a cynical, calculating committee. Indeed, the computer-controlled villains in Alphaville bear more than a passing resemblance to the bottom-line driven villains in the motion picture industry. To understand and appreciate Alphaville is to understand Godard, and vice versa. The shapely girl swimmers with knives for teeth and shark-like instincts for souls are an expanded version of Alexandra Stewart’s bikini-clad shark in the Godard episode of RoGoPag, the episode Lincoln Center audiences hissed violently in 1963. Also from RoGoPag are the pills the population of Alphaville gobbles up like peanuts to retain tranquility in the absence of recollection.

The Welles influence, particularly from Mr. Arkadin, is reflected in the free-wheeling performance of Akim Tamiroff amid the swinging light bulbs of Wellesian expressionism. The references to Dick Tracy and Flash Gordon are pure comic-strip pop, and the reference to relativity and the SS pure comic angst.

Godard, the celebrated enfant terrible of the nouvelle vague, shamelessly parades Anna Karina, the greatest love of his life among his several Galateas (Jean Seberg in Breathless had been one of the first). Karina plays Natasha Vonbraun, the daughter of Professor Vonbraun (the whimsical fusion of a Tolstoyan first name and a Nazi rocket-scientist last name is typical of Godard’s irreverent plague-on-both-your-houses attitude toward the Cold War). This love of Karina is on display with Godard’s love of movies. Cameo appearances by Jean-André Fieschi, as Professor Eckel, and Jean-Louis Commoli, as Jeckel, represent a combination of two of Godard’s successors on the staff of Cahiers du Cinéma with two Hollywood animated cartoon figures.

One may quibble over the fallacy of expressive form in illustrating computer control through the rasping-gurgling sounds of a man who has lost his voice box. Technological totalitarianism could certainly have come up with a more beguiling tone with which to seduce its subjects. Nonetheless, I am more moved today than I was in 1965 by Godard’s temerity in having Karina sum up the moral of the film with a deliberately intoned reading of the line, “Je vous aime.”

There is a moment of weary acceptance in Alphaville when Eddie Constantine, his face fading into the shadows, acknowledges that it is fate to become a legend. It is an image of intellectual heroism and self-recognition such as I have seldom seen on the screen. And in one flash, Godard illuminates one of Constantine’s most memorable responses to one of the computer’s questions in an earlier sequence. “What transforms darkness into light?” Constantine is asked. “La poèsie,” he replies. That a semi-hoodlum should be capable of such articulated sensitivity seems unlikely, but no more unlikely really than the ability to join comic strips and love sonnets with a single sensibility.

You don’t have to be French to enjoy Alphaville. But you have to love movies with high-minded seriousness.


Andrew Sarris is a film critic for The New York Observer, and a professor of film at the School of the Arts at Columbia University. His most recent book is You Ain’t Heard Nothin’ Yet: The American Talking Film: History& Memory, 1929–1949.

Pankaj Mishra : The 'People's War'

[from London Review of Books: Vol. 27 No. 12 dated 23 June 2005 ]

In Kathmandu this March, I met a Nepalese businessman who said he knew what had provoked Crown Prince Dipendra, supposed incarnation of Vishnu and former pupil at Eton, to mass murder. On the night of 1 June 2001, Dipendra appeared in the drawing-room of the royal palace in Kathmandu, dressed in combat fatigues, apparently out of it on Famous Grouse and hashish, and armed with assault rifles and pistols. In a few frenzied minutes, he killed his parents, King Birendra and Queen Aishwarya, a brother, a sister and five other relatives before putting a pistol to his head. Anointed king as he lay unconscious in hospital, he died two days later, passing his title to his uncle Gyanendra.

Dipendra’s obsession with guns at Eton, where he was admired by Lord Camoys as a ‘damn good shot’, his heavy drinking, which attracted the malice of the Sun, his addiction to hashish and his fondness for the films of Arnold Schwarzenegger – all this outlines a philistinism, and a potential for violence, commonplace among scions of Third World dynasties (Suharto, Nehru-Gandhi, Bhutto). And it is not so hard to believe the semi-official explanation for his actions: that his parents disapproved of his fiancée. However, the businessman, who claimed to know the royal family, had a more elaborate and intriguing theory.

We sat in a rooftop café in Thamel, Kathmandu’s tourist centre, a few hundred feet from the royal palace. March, the businessman said, was a good season for tourists in Nepal. ‘But look,’ he continued, pointing to the alleys below us, where the bookshops, trekking agencies, cybercafés, bakeries, malls and restaurants were empty. In recent years, the tourist industry has been damaged by news in the international press about the Maoist guerrillas, who model themselves on the Shining Path in Peru, and whose ‘people’s war’ has claimed more than 11,000 lives since 1996. Even fewer tourists have ventured to Nepal since 1 February this year, when King Gyanendra, citing the threat presented by the Maoists, grounded all flights, cut off phone and internet lines, arrested opposition politicians and imposed censorship on the media.

A portly man wearing a cotton tunic, tight trousers and a cloth cap, the businessman had the prejudices of his class, the tiny minority of affluent Nepalese whose wealth comes largely from tourism and foreign aid; and that morning – the spring sun growing warm and burning off the smog over the Kathmandu Valley; the vendors of carpets, Gurkha knives, pirate DVDs and Tibetan prayer flags sullenly eyeing a stray tourist in tie-dye clothes – he aired them freely.

He said that Maoists had bombed the private school he sent his children to; he worried that his servants might join the guerrillas, who controlled 80 per cent of the countryside and were growing strong in the Kathmandu Valley. He said that he was all for democracy – he had been among the protesters demanding a new constitution in the spring of 1990 – but peace and stability were more important. What the country needed now, he declared, was a strong and principled ruler, someone who could crush the Maoists. He said that he missed Dipendra: he was the man Nepal needed at this hour of crisis.

According to him, Dipendra’s three years as a schoolboy in Britain had radicalised him. Just as Pandit Nehru had discovered the poverty of India after his stints at Harrow and Cambridge, so Dipendra had developed a new political awareness in England. He had begun to look, with mounting horror and concern, at his homeland. Returning to Nepal, he had realised that it would take more than tourism to create a strong middle class, accelerate economic growth, build democratic institutions and lift the ninth poorest country in the world to the ranks of modern democratic nations. As it turned out, he had been thwarted at every step by conservative elements in the royal palace. He had watched multi-party democracy, introduced in 1991, grow corrupt and feeble while enriching an elite of politicians and bureaucrats; equally helplessly, he had watched the new rulers of Nepal fail to tackle the Maoists. Frustration in politics rather than love, the businessman claimed, had driven Dipendra to alcohol, drugs, guns and, finally, to regicide.

It’s often hard to know what to believe in Nepal, the only Hindu kingdom in the world, where conspiracy and rumour have long fuelled a particularly secretive kind of court politics. Independent newspapers and magazines have been widely available only since 1990, and though intellectually lively, the press has little influence over a largely illiterate population easily swayed by rumour. In December 2000, news that a Bollywood actor had insulted Nepal incited riots and attacks on Indians and Indian-owned shops across the country. Little is known about Dipendra, apart from his time at Eton, where his fellow pupils nicknamed him ‘Dippy’. There is even greater mystery surrounding Pushpa Kamal Dahal, or Prachanda, the middle-aged, articulate leader of the Maoists, who has been in hiding for the last two decades.

King Gyanendra appeared on national television to blame the palace massacre on a ‘sudden discharge by an automatic weapon’. A popular conspiracy theory, in turn, blamed it on the new king himself, who was allegedly involved in smuggling artefacts out of Nepal, and on his son, Paras, much disliked in Nepal for his habit of brandishing guns in public and dangerous driving – he has run over at least three people in recent years, killing one. More confusingly, the Maoists claimed that they had an ‘undeclared working unity’ with King Birendra, and accused Gyanendra, and Indian and American imperialists, of his murder.

This atmosphere of secrecy and intrigue seems to have grown murkier since February, when Gyanendra adopted the Bush administration’s rhetoric about ‘terrorism’ and assumed supreme power. Flights to Nepal were resumed after only a few days, and the king claimed to have lifted the emergency on 30 April, but most civil rights are still suspended today. When I arrived in Kathmandu, fear hung heavy over the street crossings, where soldiers peeped out from behind machine-gun emplacements. Men in ill-fitting Western suits, with the furtive manner of inept spies, lurked in the lobby of my hotel. Journalists spoke of threatening phone calls from senior army officers who tended to finger as Maoists anyone who didn’t support the king. Many of the people I wanted to meet turned out to be in prison or in exile. Appointments with underground activists, arduously made, were cancelled at the last minute, or people simply didn’t turn up.

Sitting in her gloomy office, a human rights activist described the routine torture and extra-judicial killing of suspected Maoists, which had risen to a startling average of eight a day. Nothing was known about the more than 1200 people the army had taken from their homes since the beginning of the ‘people’s war’ – the highest number of unexplained disappearances in the world. She spoke of the ‘massive impunity’ enjoyed by the army, which was accountable only to the king. She claimed that the governments of India, the US and the UK had failed to understand the root causes of the Maoist phenomenon and had decided, out of fear and ignorance, to supply weapons to the Royal National Army: 20,000 M-16 rifles from the US, 20,000 rifles from India, helicopters from the UK.

She said that the ‘international community’ had chosen the wrong side in a conflict that in any case was not likely to be resolved by violence. Though recently expanded, and mobilised against the Maoists in 2001, the army was no more than 85,000 strong, and could not hold the countryside, where, among the high mountains, ravines and rivers – almost perfect terrain for guerrillas – it faced a formidable enemy.

She spoke with something close to despair. Much of her work – particularly risky at present – depended on international support. But few people outside Nepal cared or knew enough about its human rights record, and the proof lay in her office, which was austerely furnished, with none of the emblems of Western philanthropy – new computers, armed guards, shiny four-wheel drives in the parking lot – that I had seen in December in Afghanistan.

‘People are passing their days here,’ she said as I left her office, and the remark, puzzling at first, became clearer as I spent more time in Kathmandu. In the streets where all demonstrations were banned, and any protest was quickly quashed by the police, a bizarre feeling of normality prevailed, best symbolised by the vibrant billboards advertising mobile phones (banned since 1 February). Adverts in which companies affirmed faith in King Gyanendra appeared daily in the heavily censored newspapers, alongside news of Maoist bombings of police stations, unverified reports of rifts between Maoist leaders, promotional articles about Mercedes Benz cars and Tag Heuer watches, and reports of parties and fashion shows and concerts in Kathmandu.

Thamel opened for business every day, but its alleys remained empty of tourists. Months of Maoist-enforced blockades and strikes were also beginning to scare away the few foreign investors who had been deceived by the affluence of Kathmandu into thinking that Nepal was a big market for luxury consumer goods. Interviewed in a local newspaper, a Dutch investor described the Nepalese as an ‘extremely corrupt, greedy, triple-faced, myopic, slow, inexperienced and uneducated people’, and declared that he was taking his hair-replacement business to Latvia. Western diplomats and United Nations officials – darting in their SUVs from one walled compound to another – speculated about a possible assault on the capital by guerrillas.

But it is the middle-class Nepalese, denounced by the Maoists as ‘comprador capitalists’, who appear to live most precariously, their hopes and anxieties echoed in the newspapers by royalist journalists who affirm daily that Nepal needs a strong ruler and Gyanendra is best placed to defend the country, by means of a spell of autocratic rule, from both Maoist ‘terrorists’ and corrupt politicians.

Often while listening to them, I would remember the businessman I had met in Thamel and what he had told me about Dipendra; and I would wonder how the crown prince, if he had indeed been sensitised to social and economic distress during his three years in Thatcher’s England, had seen his strange inheritance, a country where almost half of the 26 million people earned less than $100 a year and had no access to electricity, running water or sanitation; a country whose small economy, parasitic on foreign aid and tourism, had to be boosted by the remittances of Nepalese workers abroad, and where political forces seen as anachronisms elsewhere – monarchy and Communism – fought for supremacy.

Histories of South Asia rarely describe Nepal, except as a recipient of religions and ideologies – Buddhism, Hinduism, Communism – from India; even today, the country’s 60 ethnic and caste communities are regarded as little more than a picturesque backdrop to some of the world’s highest mountains. This is partly because Western imperialists overlooked Nepal when they radically remade Asia in the 19th and 20th centuries.*

While a British-educated middle class emerged in India and began to aspire to self-rule, Nepal remained a country of peasants, nomads and traders, controlled by a few clans and families. Previously dependent on China, its high-caste Hindu ruling class courted the British as they expanded across India in the 19th century. As in the so-called princely states of India, the British were keen to support despotic regimes in Nepal, and even reward them with territory; it was one way of staving off potentially destabilising change in a strategically important buffer state to Tibet and China. The country was also a source of cheap mercenaries. Tens of thousands of soldiers recruited by the British from the western hills of Nepal fought during the Indian Mutiny, the Boxer Rebellion in China, and in the two world wars. The Gurkhas also helped the British suppress political dissenters in India, and then, more violently, Communist anti-colonialists in Malaya in the 1950s.

As the movement for political independence grew in India, Nepal came to be even more strongly controlled by Hindu kings and the elites they created by giving land grants to members of the high castes, Bahun and Chhetri, which make up less than 30 per cent of the population. The end of the British Empire in Asia didn’t lead to rapid change in Nepal, or end its status as a client state. Indian-made goods flooded Nepalese markets, stifling local industry and deepening the country’s dependence on India. In the 1950s and 1960s, as the Cold War intensified, Nepal was the forward base of the CIA’s operations against China.

American economists and advisers trying to make the world safe for capitalism came to Nepal with plans for ‘modernisation’ and ‘development’ – then seen as strong defences against the growth of Communism in poor countries. In the Rapti valley, west of Kathmandu, where, ironically, the Maoists found their first loyal supporters in the 1990s, the US government spent about $50 million ‘improving household food production and consumption, improving income-generating opportunities for poor farmers, landless labourers, occupational castes and women’.

Modernisation and development, as defined by Western experts during the Cold War, were always compatible with, and often best expedited by, despotic rule. Few among the so-called international community protested when, after a brief experiment with parliamentary democracy in the 1950s, King Mahendra, Dipendra’s grandfather, banned all political parties. A new constitution in 1962 instituted a partyless ‘Panchayat’ system of ‘guided democracy’ in which advisers chosen or controlled by the king rubber-stamped his decisions. The representatives of the Panchayat, largely from the upper castes, helped themselves to the foreign aid that made up most of the state budget, and did little to alleviate poverty in rural areas. The king also declared Nepal a Hindu state and sought to impose on its ethnic and linguistic communities a new national identity by promoting the Nepali language.

Such hectic nation-building could have lulled Nepal’s many ethnic and linguistic communities into a patriotic daze had the project of modernisation and development not failed, or benefited so exclusively and egregiously an already privileged elite. During the years of autocratic rule (1962-90), a few roads were built in the countryside, infant mortality was halved, and the literacy rate went up from 5 per cent in 1952 to 40 per cent in 1991. But Nepal’s population also grew rapidly, further increasing pressure on the country’s scarce arable land; and the gap between the city and the countryside widened fast.

What leads the sensitive prince to drugs and alcohol often forces the pauper to migrate. Millions of Nepalese have swelled the armies of cheap mobile labour that drive the global economy, serving in Indian brothels, Thai and Malaysian sweatshops, the mansions of oil sheikhs in the Gulf and, most recently, the war zones of Iraq. Many more have migrated internally, often from the hills to the subtropical Tarai region on the long border with India. The Tarai produces most of the country’s food and cash crops, and accommodates half of its population. On its flat alluvial land, where malaria was only recently eradicated, the Buddha was born 2500 years ago; it is also where a generation of displaced Nepalese began to dream of revolution.

In Chitwan, one of the more densely populated districts in the Tarai, I met Mukti Raj Dahal, the father of the underground Maoist leader, Prachanda. Dahal was one of the millions of Nepalese to migrate to the Tarai in the 1950s. His son was then eight years old. He had travelled on to India, doing menial jobs in many cities, before returning to Chitwan, which American advisers and the Nepalese government were then developing as a ‘model district’ with education and health facilities. In Chitwan, Dalal bought some land and managed to give his eight children an education of sorts. Though he is tormented by stomach and spinal ailments, he exuded calm as he sat on the verandah of his two-roomed brick house, wearing a blue T-shirt and shorts under a black cap, a Brahminical caste mark on his forehead.

He had the serenity of a man at the end of his life. And, given the circumstances, he had not done too badly. I had spent much of that day on the road from Kathmandu to the Tarai, shuffling past long queues of Tata trucks from India, through a fog of dust and thick diesel smoke, ragged settlements occasionally appearing beside the road: shops made of wooden planks, selling food fried in peanut oil and tea in sticky clouded glasses, mud houses with thatched roofs – a pre-industrial bareness in which only the gleaming automatic guns of young soldiers and the tangle of barbed wire behind which they sat spoke of the world beyond Nepal.

The jittery soldiers who approached the car with fingers on their triggers were very young, hard to associate with stories I had heard in Kathmandu – stories no newspaper would touch – of the army marching men out of overcrowded prisons and executing them. My companion, a Nepalese journalist, was nervous. He knew that the soldiers in the countryside attacked anyone they suspected of being a Maoist, and journalists were no exception. Many of the soldiers barely knew what a journalist was.

There are few places in Nepal untouched by violence – murder, torture, arbitrary arrest – and most people live perpetually in fear of both the army and the Maoists, without expectation of justice or recompense. Dahal, however, appeared to have made a private peace with his surroundings. He told me that he spent much of his day at the local temple, listening to recitals of the Ramayana. He said that he still believed the king had good intentions. He appeared both bemused by, and admiring of, his famous son, whom he had last seen at the funeral of his wife in 1996. The ideas of equality and justice, he thought, had always appealed to Prachanda, who was a sensitive man, someone who shared his food with poor people in the village. He couldn’t tell me how his son had got interested in Mao or Marx in such a place as Chitwan, which had no bookshop or library. But he did know that Prachanda had got involved with Communists when he couldn’t find a good job with the government and had to teach at a primary school in his native hills of Pokhara.

In his speeches, which claim inspiration from Mao and seek to mobilise the peasants in the countryside against the urban elite, Prachanda comes across as an ideologue of another era: he’s an embarrassment to the Chinese regime, which is engaged in the un-Maoist task of enriching Chinese coastal cities at the expense of the hinterland, and feels compelled to accuse Nepalese Maoists of besmirching the Chairman’s good name.

In the few interviews he has given, Prachanda avoids answering questions about his background and motivation, which have to be divined from details given by Dahal: the haphazard schooling, the useless degree, the ill-paid teaching job in a village school, all of which seem to lead inexorably to a conflict with, and resentment of, unjust authority.

The ‘modernisation’ and ‘development’ of Nepal during the 1950s and 1960s created millions of men like Prachanda, lured away from their subsistence economies and abandoned on the threshold of a world in which they found they had, and could have, no place. Nepal’s agricultural economy offered few of them the jobs or the dignity they felt was their due, and they were too aware of the possibilities thwarted by an unequal, stratified society to reconcile themselves to a life of menial labour in unknown lands, and an old age spent in religious stupor. Educated, but with no prospects, many young men like Prachanda must have been more than ready to embrace radical ideas about the ways that an entrenched urban elite could be challenged and even overthrown if peasants in the countryside were organised.

Growing up in Nepal in the 1960s, Prachanda watched these ideas grow in the Naxalbari movement in India. Communist activists lived and worked secretly in parts of Nepal during the Panchayat era – in the 1950s, a famous Communist leader called M.B. Singh travelled in the midwestern hills and acquired followers among the Magars, one of Nepal’s more prominent ethnic groups now supporting the Maoists. But Prachanda says that the ‘historic Naxalbari movement’ of India was the ‘greatest influence’ on the Communists of Nepal.

In the late 1960s, thousands of students, many of them middle-class and upper-caste, joined an armed peasant uprising led by an extremist faction of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) in West Bengal and Bihar. Known as Naxalites, after the Naxalbari district where the revolt first erupted in 1967, they attacked ‘class enemies’ – big landlords, policemen, bureaucrats – and ‘liberated’ territories which they hoped would form bases for an eventual assault on the cities, as had happened in China. The Indian government responded brutally, killing and torturing thousands. Driven underground, the Naxalite movement splintered, and remained dormant for many years.

In the 1990s, when India began to move towards a free market, the Naxalite movement revived in some of the poorest and most populous Indian states. Part of the reason for this is that successive Indian governments have steadily reduced subsidies for agriculture, public health, education and poverty-eradication, exposing large sections of the population to disease, debt, hunger and starvation. Almost three thousand farmers committed suicide in the southern state of Andhra Pradesh after the government, advised by McKinsey, cut agricultural subsidies in an attempt to initiate farmers into the world of unregulated markets. In recent years, Naxalite movements, which have long organised landless, low-caste peasants in Bihar and Andhra Pradesh, have grown quickly in parts of Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh – where an enfeebled Indian state is increasingly absent – to the extent that police and intelligence officials in India now speak anxiously of an unbroken belt of Communist-dominated territory from Nepal to South India.

The Naxalite uprising in the late 1960s invigorated the few Communists in Nepal, who, like the members of the Nepali Congress, the main underground political organisation, sought guidance and encouragement from India. In 1971, some Nepalese Communists living across the border from Naxalbari declared a ‘people’s war’ against the monarchy. They killed seven ‘class enemies’ before being suppressed by the king. As fractious as their Indian counterparts, the Nepalese Communist parties split and split again over petty doctrinal or personality issues. In 1991, after the restoration of multi-party democracy, several of them contested elections, and even did well: a Communist coalition became the biggest opposition party, and briefly held power in 1994. In the early 1990s, however, few people in Nepal could have predicted the swift rise of Prachanda and the obscure faction he led.

The Maoists under Prachanda resolved as early as 1986 to follow Mao’s strategy of capturing state power through a ‘people’s war’. They did not start the war until the mid-1990s, however, when disillusionment with parliamentary democracy created for them a potentially wide popular base in the countryside. Still, hardly anyone noticed when on 4 February 1996 the Maoists presented the government with a list of 40 demands, which included abrogating existing treaties with India, stripping the monarchy of all power and privileges, drafting a new constitution by means of a constituent assembly, nationalising private property, declaring Nepal a secular nation and ending all foreign aid. These demands were not likely to be met; and as though aware of this, the Maoists began their ‘people’s war’ by attacking police stations in six districts four days before the deadline.

For the next five years, the Maoists forced their way into the national consciousness with their increasingly bold tactics. They financed themselves by collecting ‘taxes’ from farmers, and they exacted ‘donations’ from many businessmen in the Kathmandu Valley. They indoctrinated schoolchildren; they formed people’s governments in the areas they controlled and dispensed rough justice to criminals and ‘class enemies’. But much of the new power and charisma of the Maoists came from their ability to launch audacious attacks on the police and the army.

The military wing of the Maoists initially consisted of a few ill-trained men armed with antique rifles and homemade weapons. But they chose their first target cannily: the police, almost the only representatives of the central government in much of Nepal. Poorly armed, often with little more than sticks and .303 Lee Enfield rifles, the police retreated swiftly before the Maoists, who also attacked roads, bridges, dams, administrative offices, bridges, power plants – anything they felt might aid the counter-insurgency efforts of the government.

In recent years, the Maoists have grown militarily strong, mostly through conscription in the countryside, and regular training – allegedly provided by Indian Naxalites. They have acquired better weapons by looting police stations and buying from the arms bazaars of India; they have also learned how to make roadside explosives, pipe and ‘pressure cooker’ bombs. In November 2001, the Maoists launched 48 attacks on the army and the police in a single day, forcing the Nepalese government to impose a state of emergency. More than 5000 people died in the next 15 months, the bloodiest period in Nepal’s modern history.

But violence is only a part of the Maoists’ overall strategy. In an interview in 2000, Prachanda criticised Indian Communist groups for their lack of vision and spoke of the importance of developing ‘base areas’. Since 1996, the Maoists have spread out from their traditional home in the midwestern hills of Rolpa and Rukum districts. Their cadres – estimated to number as many as 100,000 – travel to deprived areas, addressing, and often recruiting from, the large and growing mass of people deeply unhappy with Nepal’s new democratic dispensation.

Some measure of democracy was inevitable in Nepal by the 1980s. In previous decades, the state’s half-hearted efforts at development had produced many low-level bureaucrats, small businessmen, teachers, students and unemployed graduates. This new class resented the continuing dominance of upper-caste clans and families. The conflict between the old elite and its challengers was aggravated by a series of economic crises in the late 1980s. In 1985-86, Nepal had negotiated a loan with the IMF and World Bank. The bank’s euphemistically named (and free-market oriented) ‘structural adjustment programme’, which was then causing havoc in Latin American economies, forced the Nepalese government to cut farm subsidies and jobs in the public sector. GDP grew as a result but the gains were cancelled out by inflation of up to 10 per cent and a trade and transit embargo imposed by India in 1989, which caused severe fuel shortages and price rises.

The protesters who filled the streets of Kathmandu in the spring of 1990 were convinced that the decaying Panchayat system could not deal with the shocks of the new world and needed to be reformed. In acceding to demands for multi-party democracy, the king appeared to acknowledge the strength of the new educated class and to recognise that the old political system needed a degree of popular legitimacy if it was to survive. It’s clear now that what happened in 1990 was less a revolution than a reconfiguration of power, sanctified by elections, among the old royalist oligarchy and an emerging urban middle class. Many courtiers and sycophants of the king managed to reinvent themselves as parliamentary politicians, often joining the Nepali Congress, the political party that ruled Nepal for all but one of the next 13 years. There were few ideological differences between the Nepali Congress and the main opposition party, the radical-sounding Communist Party of Nepal (United Marxist-Leninist), both of which continued to be led by upper-caste men motivated largely by a desire for money and power. Elections were held frequently, and a procession of governments – 13 in as many years – made Nepalese democracy appear vibrant. But the majority of the population, especially its ethnic communities, went largely unrepresented.

In 1992, when democracy still promised much, and Maoism was no more than another rumour in the streets of Kathmandu, Andrew Nickson, a British expert on Latin America, wrote prophetically:

The future prospects of Maoism in Nepal will . . . depend largely on the extent to which the newly elected Nepali Congress government addresses the historic neglect and discrimination of the small rural communities which still make up the overwhelming bulk of the population of the country. As in the case of Peru, this would require a radical reallocation of government expenditures towards rural areas in the form of agricultural extension services and primary healthcare provision.

Needless to say, this didn’t happen. In 2002, Dalits, low-caste Hindus, had an annual per capita income of only $40, compared to a national average of $210; fewer than 10 per cent of Dalits were literate. The upper-caste men who dominated the new democratic regime were competing among themselves to siphon off the money pouring into Nepal from foreign donors. A fresh convert to the ideology of the free market, the Nepalese government dedicated itself to creating wealth in urban areas. Trying to boost private investment in Kathmandu, it neglected agriculture, on which more than 80 per cent of the population depend for a living. Not surprisingly, absolute poverty continued to increase in the late 1990s, even as Kathmandu Valley benefited from the growth in the tourist, garment and carpet industries, and filled up with new hotels, resorts and villas.

In such circumstances, many people are likely to be attracted to violent, extra-parliamentary groups. The Maoists in Nepal had their first ready constituency among rural youths, more than 100,000 of whom fail their high school examination every year. Unemployed and adrift, many of these young men worked for other political parties in the countryside before becoming disillusioned and joining the Maoists.

Mohan was one of the young men who joined a newly legitimate political party after 1990 and then found himself remote from the spoils of power. He then worked with the Maoists for almost five years, living in jungles, once travelling to the easternmost corner of Nepal, before deciding to leave them. He couldn’t return to his village, which lay in the Maoist-dominated region of Rolpa, and had gone to India for a while. He was now trying to lie low in Kathmandu, and although he didn’t say so, he seemed to be ‘passing his days’ and making a living through odd jobs, like so many other people in the city.

We had arranged to meet in Boudhanath, Kathmandu’s major Buddhist site. Sitting in the square around the white stupa, among monks in swirling crimson robes and often with white faces, Mohan spoke of ‘feudal forces’ and the ‘bourgeoisie’: their corruption had paved the way for the Maoists, whom he described as ‘anarchists’. He used the foreign words with a Nepalese inflection. He said that he had picked them up while accompanying a Maoist propagandist on tour; and it occurred to me, as he described his background, that he still used them despite having left the Maoists because he had no other vocabulary with which to describe his experience of deprivation and disappointment.

He was born and brought up in a family of Magar shepherds in a corner of Rolpa district that had no proper roads, schools or hospitals. Educated at a school in Palpa, a walk of several miles from his village, he had joined the Nepali Congress in 1992, when still in his late teens, and become a personal aide to a prominent local politician. There were many such young men. They received no money for their services, but slept in the politician’s house, ate the food prepared for his family, and travelled with him to Kathmandu. Mohan said that it was a good time, the early years of democracy. He liked being in Kathmandu, especially with someone who had a bit of power. But he couldn’t fail to notice that the politician returned less and less often to his constituency in the hills and often refused to meet people who came to his door asking for jobs, money and medical help. He was surprised to hear that the politician was building a new house for himself in Kathmandu. Soon, he felt he was not needed, and one day the politician’s wife told him to eat elsewhere.

Clashes between Nepali Congress activists and the Maoists were common in his area; he felt that he could be useful to the Maoists with his knowledge of politics. He was also attracted to the idea of ethnic autonomy that the Maoists espoused. He had seen in his time with the politician how the upper-caste-dominated government in Kathmandu possessed an unjust share of the country’s wealth and resources. Many people he knew had already joined the Maoists, and in 1995, one of his friends introduced him to the Maoist ‘squad commander’ in the region.

As he spoke, I wondered if this was the whole truth, if he hadn’t joined the Maoists for the same reason he had joined the Nepali Congress, the reason many young men like him in India joined political parties: for food and shelter. In any case, he joined the Maoists at a bad time: it was in 1995 that the Nepalese government launched Operation Romeo.

This scorched-earth campaign is described as an instance of ‘state terror’ in a report by INSEC (Informal Sector Service Centre), Nepal’s most reliable human rights group. The police, according to the report, invaded villages in the Rolpa and Rukum districts, killing and torturing young men and raping women. When I mentioned this to Mohan, he said that things weren’t as bad as they were made out to be by the ‘bourgeois’ intelligentsia in Kathmandu, who, he thought, were soft on the Maoists. He said the Maoists were simply another opportunistic political group; this was why he had left them. They were interested in mobilising ethnic communities only to the extent that this would help them capture ‘state power’; they weren’t really interested in giving them autonomy. He had also been repelled by their cruelty. He had heard about – if not actually seen – instances of Maoists punishing people who refused to pay taxes, defied their alcohol ban or were suspected of being police informers. Using rocks and hammers, they often broke all the bones in their victims’ bodies before skinning them alive and cutting off their tongues, ears, lips and noses.

Many of these stories appear in reports by Nepalese and international human rights groups. The Maoist leaders were, I often heard in Kathmandu, riding a tiger, unable to prevent their angry and frustrated cadres from committing torture and murder. Criminals had infiltrated their movement, and some Maoists now made a living from extortion and kidnapping. When confronted with these excesses, Maoist leaders deny or deplore them. They probably realise that that they are losing many of their original supporters, who are as tired of the organisation’s growing extremism as of the years of indecisive fighting. Nevertheless, these leaders can often seem constrained in their political thinking by revolutionary methods and rhetoric created in another time and place. Prachanda, for instance, is convinced that ‘a new wave of revolution, world revolution is beginning, because imperialism is facing a great crisis.’

When the subject is not world revolution but the specific situation of Nepal, he can be shrewdly perceptive. A police officer in India told me that many of the Indian Communists he interviewed confessed to learning much from the Maoists in Nepal, who were not as rigidly doctrinal as Communists in India and Afghanistan. As Prachanda put it:

The situation in Nepal is not classical, not traditional. In the Terai region we find landlords with some lands, and we have to seize the lands and distribute them among the poor peasants. But in the whole mountainous regions, that is not the case. There are smallholdings, and no big landlords . . . How to develop production, how to raise production is the main problem here. The small pieces of land mean the peasants have low productivity. With collective farming it will be more scientific and things can be done to raise production.

It is not clear how much collective farming exists, or what non-military use the Maoists make of the taxes they collect. In fact, there is little reliable information about what goes on in the countryside. Few journalists venture out of their urban bases, and the Maoists aren’t the only obstacle. Most of the very few roads outside Kathmandu are a series of large potholes, and then there are the nervous soldiers at checkpoints. And once you move away from the highway, no soldiers or policemen appear for miles on end. In Shakti Khor, a village in the Tarai region populated by one of the poorest communities in Nepal, a few men quietly informed us that Maoist guerrillas were hiding in the nearby forest, where no security forces ever ventured and from where the Maoists often escaped to India. At a small co-operative shop selling honey, mustard oil, turmeric and herbal medicines, two men in their mid-twenties appeared very keen to put in a good word for the Maoists – who the previous night had painted red anti-monarchy slogans on the clean walls.

In the other Maoist-dominated regions I visited, people seemed too afraid to talk. At Deurali Bazaar, a village at the end of a long and treacherous drive in the hills near Pokhara, a newly constructed bamboo gate was wrapped with a red cloth painted with a hammer and sickle and the names of Maoists either dead or in prison. The scene in the square appeared normal at first – women scrubbing children at a municipal tap, young men drinking tea, an old tailor hunched over an antique sewing-machine, his walking stick leaning against his chair – but the presence of the Maoists, if unacknowledged, was unmistakable. When I tried to talk to the men at the teashop, they walked away fast, one of them knocking over the tailor’s stick. The shopkeeper said that he knew nothing about Maoists. He didn’t know who had built the bamboo gate; it had simply appeared one morning.

When I got back to Pokhara that evening, the news was of three teenage students killed as they tried to stop an army car on the highway. The previous day I had seen newspaper reports in which the army described the students as ‘terrorists’ and claimed to have found documents linking them to the Maoists. But it now seemed clear that they were just collecting donations for Holi, the Hindu festival of colours. There were eyewitnesses to the shooting. The parents of the victims had exhumed their corpses from the shallow graves in which the army had quickly buried them and discovered that two of them had been wearing their school uniforms. Like much else in Nepal, this would not appear in the newspapers.

The bloody stalemate in Nepal may last for a long time. The army is too small and poorly equipped at present decisively to defeat the Maoists. In some areas it has recently tried arming upper-caste villagers and inciting them to take action against the Maoists. In the southern district of Kapilavastu, vigilante groups organised by a local landlord and armed by the government claim to have killed more than fifty Maoists in February. Such tactics are not only likely to lead to a civil war but also to increase support for the Maoists in areas where the government is either absent or disliked.

Though unlikely at present, talks may offer a way forward. The Maoists have shown themselves willing to negotiate and even to compromise: in July 2001 they dropped their demand that Nepal cease to be a monarchy. More recently, Prachanda hinted at a flexible stance when he called for a united front of mainstream political parties against the monarch. He probably fears that the guerrilla force might self-destruct if its leaders fail to lead their more extreme cadres in the direction of moderate politics. But any Maoist concessions to bourgeois democracy are unlikely to please Gyanendra, who clearly wants to use the current chaos to help him hold on to his power.

If he periodically evokes the prospect of terrorists taking over Nepal, Gyanendra can count on the support of India, the US and the UK. In late 2001, the US ambassador to Nepal, Michael Malinowski, a veteran of the CIA-sponsored anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan, said that ‘these terrorists, under the guise of Maoism or the so-called “people’s war”, are fundamentally the same as terrorists elsewhere – be they members of the Shining Path, Abu Sayaf, the Khmer Rouge or al-Qaida.’ The then Hindu nationalist government in Delhi, just as eager to name new enemies, also described the Maoists as ‘terrorists’.

The present Indian government has a more nuanced view of Nepal. But it is worried about India’s own Communist rebels and their links with the Nepalese Maoists, and it believes that, as Malinowski put it, ‘all kinds of bad guys could use Nepal as a base, like in Afghanistan.’ Responding to fears that the army in Nepal was running out of ammunition, India resumed its arms supply this year, partly hoping to contain the Maoists and wanting too to maintain its influence over Nepal in the face of growing competition from the US.

There is no evidence that bad guys, as defined by the Bush administration, have flocked to Nepal; the Maoists are far from achieving a military victory; and the Communists in India are unlikely to extend their influence beyond the poverty-stricken districts they presently control. The rise of an armed Communist movement in a strategically important country nevertheless disturbs many political elites, who believe that Communism died in 1989 and that history has arrived at the terminus of liberal-capitalist democracy.

A European diplomat in Kathmandu told me that although Western countries hoped the political parties and the king would put up a joint front against the Maoists, they knew they might at some point have to support the king and his army if he alone was left to protect the country from the Maoists and keep alive the prospects for democracy. I did not feel that I could ask him about the nature of a democracy that is protected by an autocrat. Perhaps he meant nothing more by the word ‘democracy’ than regular elections: the kind of democracy whose failure to contain violence or to limit systemic poverty and inequality does not matter so long as elections are held, even if, as in Afghanistan and Iraq, under a form of martial law, and in which the turnout of voters does nothing but empower and legitimise a native elite willing to push the priorities of its Western patrons.

Such a form of democracy, which is slowly coming into being in Pakistan, could be revived again in Nepal, as the king repairs his relationship with the mainstream political parties. It is possible, too, that the excesses of the Maoists will cause them to self-destruct. Certainly the international revolution Prachanda speaks of will prove a fantasy. Yet it’s hard to wish away the rage and despair of people who, arriving late in the modern world, have known its primary ideology, democracy, only as another delusion – the disenchanted millions who will increasingly seek, through other means than elections, the dignity and justice that they feel is owed to them.


* For an accessible account of the beginnings of modern Nepal, see John Whelpton's A History of Nepal, Cambridge, 2005. Some recent scholarship on the Maoists is collected in Himalayan 'People's War': Nepal's Maoist Rebellion, ed. Michael Hutt, Hurst and Co, 2004. The Nepalese novelist Manjushree Thapa provides an engaging personal account of Nepal's recent turbulent years in Forget Kathmandu: An Elegy for Democracy, Penguin India, Delhi, 2005'